Monday, August 29, 2011

Sensitivity and Etsy

If you ask the typical Etsy seller if they are sensitive to the needs of others, you'll probably hear a resounding chorus of "yes." Yes, we care. Yes, we want to do good. Yes, we really are upset if someone says they're upset.

But if you ask the typical Etsy forum user whether or not its appropriate to exploit a natural disaster, national tragedy, or celebrity death for profit and you get a very different response. Instead of "maybe we shouldn't tag items 'hurricane irene' just to turn a profit," you hear "anyone who is against tagging non-related items 'hurricane irene' is for censorship." You'll see people sling around a bunch of big words that they don't know the actual definition of or question your use of a word like exploitation. We've been through this looking glass before and it's not pretty on the other side.

I could link you to a bunch of discussions on similar topics that have upset me in the past. I won't. I'll point you to the main one recently for context and get on with the point.

For some sellers, something magically happens if they think they're being criticized. They go insane. Suddenly, no one else matters in the world. They are the only one with feelings and a valid opinion. It could be something as tiny as a typo in a listing or as big as making a really offensive product and tagging it to the heavens in the face of a huge natural disaster. It doesn't even matter if the criticism wasn't actually aimed at that seller. Any sense of sensitivity or a desire to do good goes out the window if they face any adversity.

This isn't a good business practice. What is a good business practice is thinking before you act. Take a minute and think if you want to be the kind of seller who comes across as coldly calculating and opportunistic. Are you really helping your business by running outside during a hurricane to snap a photo of the clouds or a tree swaying in the wind so you can list it before the storm passes? Or are you doing something in the heat of the moment that might come across as insensitive at best? It doesn't even need to be something this big. Think about the implications of your design and the context of the imagery you used. We all know the swastika was once a symbol of peace. That does not mean painting a big red swastika on the forehead of a porcelain doll is a prayer for hope. You see where I'm going with this?

If you think your business is helped by taking advantage of the misfortune of others, then do it at this point. Just don't come crying to anyone else when someone says this is insensitive or wrong. Own up to your decision and learn to take criticism. Just like you can tag your two minute sketch of a cloud "hurricane irene," slap it in a treasury called "Storms's A Brewin'!!!1!!," and start a "Hurricane Sale" in your shop, I can go into the Etsy forums if I choose to and post the idea that maybe Etsy needs to allow for tags to be reported for inappropriate content.

If you want to be insensitive to others, go ahead. It's your business. You're the one who will lose potential customers for offending them. Me? I'll avoid your shop if I see something like this. Crazy as it sounds, I do have a list of Etsy users I will not buy from under any circumstances and that list got a little bigger over the past three days.

Why so serious? I don't know. Maybe because I found out from my parents that a bunch of my students got evacuated after a dam broke in the next town and flooded my old neighborhood. Maybe because the people who didn't see their homes get destroyed in unexpected flooding caused by Hurricane Irene are without power, clean water, and phone lines until who knows when. Maybe because I was able to walk down the hill in my neighborhood and snap this photo of the brand new river that replaced the main road I use to go anywhere in my town.

For a bit more perspective, here's the shot my parents took from the other side of that same road.

Good business is anticipating the needs of your customers and sticking to your own ethics. If you don't have a problem exploiting death and destruction for a quick buck, have at it. It most likely will catch up to you in the long run. Do you really want to be that store?

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